Saying that the situation on the battlefield is hard for everyone deployed there is an understatement. Away from the comfort of their home, loved ones, and basically everything that they knew all their lives. There were also no movie nights with a sweetheart, no dinner dates, and no watching of concerts and performances. To boost the morale of the soldiers, the National Theater Conference authorized soldier shows during World War II, saying it was “a necessity, not a frill.” Thus the beginning of GIs dressing up as drag queens.

Male Soldiers in Tutus

It was in 1942 that the approval by leadership in Washington for the Special Services was given, in concert with the United Service Organization (USO) and American Red Cross, to start soldier show productions to provide entertainment to the troops both in and out of the country.

This Is the Army. Army Signal Corps photographs, courtesy of the National Archives.
This Is the Army. Army Signal Corps photographs, courtesy of the National Archives. (The National WWII Museum New Orleans)

A publication called Blueprint Specials was issued, containing everything that they had to know to put on an approved and pre-scripted soldier drag show. They even included patterns for dress-making and suggestions for material procurement. The whole “girly” show choreography was already outlined in the publications, so the GIs didn’t have to spend time creating their own. The outline was also there to ensure that they would look stunning in their highly choreographed “pony ballet” performance when groups of masculine-looking soldiers perform ballet routines in their cute little tutus and army-issued boots.

This Is the Army

Russian American composer and lyricist and widely considered one of the greatest songwriters in history, Irving Berlin was able to showcase his brilliance for creating soldier shows with the production of  This Is the Army during World War II. This Is the Army was a performance that opened to a packed audience at New York’s Broadway Theater on July 4, 1942. It was an all-soldier cast show that garnered huge success with the audience to raise money in support of the Army Emergency Relief Rund. It was also performed in front of President Roosevelt in Washington, DC. It was reported that the President was especially drawn to the striptease routine of a performer impersonating Gypsy Rose.

Wac applying makeup to GI. Army Signal Corps photographs, SC-204637, courtesy of the National Archives.
Wac applying makeup to GI. Army Signal Corps photographs, SC-204637, courtesy of the National Archives. (The National WWII Museum New Orleans)

There was also a film version of This Is the Army starring Ronald Reagan and George Murphy that raised a whopping $10,000,000 for the relief funds. The performances during the soldier shows were usually either comedic routines, skilled feminine singers and dancers, or impersonators of female stars of the period.

An all-black soldier show was also produced just a month after the Broadway opening of the This Is the Army, called Jumping with Jodie. This was produced by the soldiers of the 3966th Quartermaster Truck Company in Germany, including soldiers in drag in a Harlem nightclub number. The performers were not racially integrated on stage until near the end of the war.

Repelling Criticism

Imagine our male soldiers of today dressing up in tutus and putting on heavy makeup on their faces? The Cancel Culture cavalry would charge like the Light Brigade at Balaclava . The soldier performers of the This Is the Army could have been criticized, too, especially since drag performers were not a common thing in American society at that time, let alone performances by US soldiers. Potentially negative reactions were quelled by glowing media reviews, presenting wartime drag performers as just GIs overseas blowing off steam to entertain each other and boost morale.

As for the members of the Women’s Army Corps, they were not allowed to perform. It was believed that their image had to be protected so they could gain greater acceptance not only in the military but also in the general public. And so, they were instead allowed to perform workshops for soldiers that included teaching them how to properly put on makeup for each other and to properly put on costumes as a female impersonator.

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